Oral Testimony of
Jim Hall, Chairman
National Transportation Safety Board
Subcommittee on Transportation and Related Agencies
Committee on Appropriations
House of Representatives
Regarding Surface Transportation Safety
February 23, 1999
Good morning Chairman Wolf and members of the subcommittee. It is a pleasure to represent the National Transportation Safety Board before you today on the subject of surface transportation safety.
I want to first compliment this subcommittee and your leadership, Mr. Chairman, on your efforts to continually address the challenges posed by these safety issues. My full testimony has been submitted for the record, so I will focus my remarks on an issue that will become increasing critical as we enter the 21st century - heavy vehicle safety.
Factors that prevent the safe operation of heavy vehicles on our highways are reaching critical mass. Many of our interstate highways - which serve as major truck corridors - are over capacity and often are not ideally designed for heavy vehicular traffic. Meanwhile, the number of trucks and the amount of freight they transport continue to increase. Ten years ago, the motor vehicle industry manufactured about 130,000 heavy trucks annually; next year, that number is expected to exceed 220,000.
What's more, trucks are even bigger and more powerful. In the mid-1960s, typical semi-trailers were 35 feet long. Today, they are 45 to 53 feet long - and a foot wider than they used to be. Triple combination unit trailers can extend to over 90 feet in length.
Adding to the problem, the nature of truck transportation has moved to time sensitive delivery. As industry shrinks inventory, they use trucks as mobile warehouses for production. The ramifications are clear - ever more pressure on operators, shippers, brokers, and drivers to keep vehicles moving to meet demanding production schedules.
Other factors are also affecting heavy vehicle safety - increased speed limits, an overall driver shortage, and through NAFTA - the potential introduction onto our highways of Mexican trucks and drivers that do not meet the U.S. safety standards.
The Safety Board has learned through its investigations that, regardless of the cause, collisions between automobiles and heavy vehicles usually result in disproportional injuries and fatalities for the car occupants. We're also revisiting occupant protection on school buses because of seven fatal accidents involving school buses and trucks we've investigated in the last two years.
As you know, Mr. Chairman, the NTSB's primary product is our safety recommendations. Over the years, these have provided the impetus for some major transportation safety improvements - such as Commercial Drivers' Licenses, better school bus construction standards, age-21 drinking laws, and second generation air bags. We have issued other recommendations that, if implemented, would improve the safety of our highways without the need for years of additional testing.
Let me suggest just a few solutions that can be implemented right away.
First, hours-of-service regulations. Almost 5 years ago, the Safety Board recommended that DOT develop new hours-of-service rules that reflect the research on truck and bus driver fatigue. Specifically, the rules need to provide the opportunity for drivers to obtain 8 hours of continuous sleep after driving for 10 hours. DOT has yet to make any changes to this 62-year-old regulation.
Second, collision warning technology. The DOT has yet to act on our 1995 recommendation to evaluate this technology, which was developed, at taxpayer expense, by the Department of Defense. The U.S. Army is installing it as standard equipment on all of its heavy trucks. Despite DOT's inactivity, small segments of the industry have installed this technology voluntarily. In my opinion, it should be mandated for all new trucks; we will examine this issue further during our upcoming truck forum.
Third, accident recorders. There are no compelling arguments why heavy vehicles should not be equipped with recorders. We have made significant progress in other modes - commercial aviation, rail and marine - however, we have seen little movement in the truck and bus industries. We believe that adequate on-board recording devices are necessary to identify safety trends, develop corrective actions, and conduct more efficient accident investigations.
This issue has been on our Most Wanted List of Safety Improvements since 1990. In May, the Safety Board will hold a symposium to continue to promote the development and use of recorders in all transportation modes.
Finally, I want to discuss maximum speed governors. Recently, I saw their potential benefits for heavy vehicles, while in Australia. I understand they are also used extensively in Europe, as well as by some of our major motor carriers. Preventing heavy vehicles from travelling at speeds significantly greater than the posted speed limit makes sense. On the same visit, I also saw technology that allows State road safety authorities to record truck speeds and calculate hours-of-service violations using overhead cameras - the Australians call it Safe-T-Cam. Although the technology is still being developed, we plan to discuss it at our hearing as well.
Effective leadership, at all levels, is needed to implement these safety measures now. As I said earlier, we are going to continue to see a dramatic increase in freight and passenger traffic on our highways. As you know, Mr. Chairman, I have requested additional personnel for our highway safety program. This reflects the growth of the highway transportation system and DOT's unsatisfactory responses to many of the recommendations I've highlighted today.
Revisions to the Hours of Service, recorders, collision warning technology, GPS, maximum speed governors, Safe-T-Cams, highway design, reflective tape, rumble strips, parking and rest areas, and rules holding shippers and brokers responsible for setting reasonable delivery schedules - can all be applied today. Much of the technology was developed at taxpayer expense, yet it is being used primarily for the economic benefit of private industry - not for the safety of the travelling public. It is time to put safety first in heavy vehicle transportation.
Thank you, Mr. Chairman. I am happy to take the subcommittee's questions.